Amid the lapping waves and dockside boats, a single paddle-boarder strokes his way across the Potomac on the Alexandria waterfront. He looks over and witnesses the magnetic attraction of this Northern Virginia river city, nestled only minutes from the bubble of the nation’s capital. Overlooked by incomers who bee-line for the National Mall, Alexandria is a fascinating fusion of cultures. Specifically, the new waterfront is what you should make time to explore, being in the exciting stages of a renaissance with a 20-year plan in place to re-use historic buildings, develop eco-friendly businesses, expand the piers and bring in prominent live music performers.
Set against a backdrop of colourful 200-year-old row homes, Alexandria was congested with trains and yards during the railroad projects of the 1840s. Today those tracks have been cleared to pave the way for modern seafood restaurants, historical re-enactments on courthouse steps, boutique hotels and museums. Scanning the boardwalk from my riverside bench, I absorb the cosmopolitan energy of people strolling on vibrant green patches of dog-friendly park, millennials playing volleyball and shoppers purchasing vintage jewellery from outdoor vendors. The caricature artists who dot the pier complete the waterfront’s laid-back vibe as they swerve their charcoal crayons at dizzying speeds.
I focus my visit on the Old Town, the booming historic centre of Alexandria. King St is the main attraction here and is home to the King St Gardens Park, the Freedom House Museum, the Christ Episcopal Church (a favourite of George Washington) and Gadsby’s Tavern Ice House. The complimentary King St trolley drops me off at the Saturday farmers’ market, where I buy fresh meat and produce, and walk the same cobblestoned path that was laid down in 1753. A few stops down, I join a small crowd at Carlyle House, one of Alexandria’s most popular tourist attractions. My one-hour tour of this Georgian Palladian manor house (built the same year as the farmers’ market) paints the history of Alexandria. The interactive story details the conversation of five royal governors who met in this house to discuss how to fund America’s French and Indian War, which lasted almost 10 years.
Heading towards the river, I stop at the new Waterfront Market, a locally owned dockside culinary establishment with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The125-seat, quick-service café serves everything from hearty soups and creative salads, to sushi, flatbread and weekend brunches. I order hummus and pita chips for a quick bite before continuing my exploration of the market’s interior. Local businessmen on lunch breaks eye the snacks in the small retail area before hurrying back to work.
A few steps from the Waterfront Market lies the 40-year-old Torpedo Factory, the largest collection of publicly accessible working art studios in the USA. Three floors of artistic enclaves give way to ceramics, collages, fibres, glass, enamel, jewellery, mixed-media, paintings, photograps, prints and sculptures.
The Torpedo Factory is also home to the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. As someone fascinated by science and history, I find this one-room museum a hotbed of gems beckoning to be examined. There are finds from the Alexandria waterfront excavation on Lee St, a 19th-century drumstick that belonged to a Civil War drummer boy and a 13 000-year -old stone tool. The most interesting artifact may be the mysterious Wickham musket from 1860, found in a local privy, that took over a year to piece together. The children who visit the museum are challenged to put together broken ceramic plates as they would pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They’re inadvertently transported into the world of archaeologists who carefully reassemble excavated artifacts.
History makes me hungry, so I take the King St trolley to Brabo, a Belgian-inspired restaurant nestled between Peyton and Harvard Sts. The newly-designed courtyard is decked out in plush love seats and the Sweet Bay magnolia trees cast a cool shade over the intimate tables. My waiter explains that the restaurant’s named after the famous fountain in Antwerp, where the Roman soldier Silvius Brabo is in suspended animation, throwing a giant’s hand. Just as the hand symbolises the free waterway which was vital for Antwerp’s survival in the 1500s, Alexandria’s waterfront gives life to Old Town. I feast on locally sourced mussels, rock shrimp orecchiette and oak-smoked poussin. Sated, I settle in at the Lorien Hotel & Spa, across the courtyard from the restaurant. The spa beckons with its new Cherry Blossom Ritual Treatment– a vigorous exfoliation experience with warming gingergrass and bamboo. The final step includes beautiful aromas, mixing organic rice bran scented with cherry blossoms, and the concoction’s rubbed into my muscles, releasing the tension built up from my walk around town.
The next day I explore Alexandria’s tranquil waterfront public parks, where more than 10ha of greenery make up peaceful hangouts like Founders’ Park, Rivergate Park and Oronoco Bay Park. I choose to cycle the 29km-long Mount Vernon Trail, which provides a panoramic passage from George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Alexandria to DC’s national monuments and memorials. Biking this trail provides an easy view of the Potomac River as I pass through parks, yacht clubs, wetlands, neighborhoods and wooded acres.
On my return, I head south into Old Town Alexandria, exit the trail at Pendleton St and veer left onto Union St. As I dismount from my bike, I enjoy the creative energy of Alexandria, which permeates from the waterfront, through Old Town and into beyond.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Sawubona magazine, download here for free. All Photographs by Don Carrick.